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June 17, 2019

Coming soon: Black Hole, the movie! Scientists hope to watch celestial phenomenon evolve through an evening

May 19, 2019
U.S. computer scientist Katherine Bouman waits to speak during a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on the “Event Horizon Telescope: The Black hole seen Round the World” in the Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC on Thursday. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

The scientists who brought us the blockbuster, first-ever photo of a supermassive black hole are working on a sequel — a first-ever movie of a black hole.

Testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the scientists said their iconic image of a fire-ringed doughnut helped confirm part of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

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But, like with promises for each new Avengers flick, moving images will take it to a whole new level.

“What you’re seeing here is light orbiting around the black hole,” said Sheperd Doeleman, who runs the Event Horizon Telescope project that captured the data used to make the image. “That’s one test of Einstein. Now we can move to matter orbiting around the black hole, make movies of this — a completely different test of Einstein.”

The photo shows a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87, or M87, that is 55 million light years from earth.

In this handout photo provided by the National Science Foundation, the Event Horizon Telescope captures a black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon, in an image released on April 10.
In this handout photo provided by the National Science Foundation, the Event Horizon Telescope captures a black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon, in an image released on April 10. (Handout/Getty Images)

Next time, the focus of the new work is, as they also say in Hollywood, closer to home — the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, known as Sagitarius A*, or Sag A-star.

But that blackhole, as large as it is, is 1,000 smaller than M87’s and spinning much faster. That makes it a much harder target. It will require new methods to crunch the data from the Event Horizon Telescope, which is actually an array of telescopes spread around the planet.

Katie Bouman, an MIT data scientist whose image went viral after the world learned her algorithms were critical to creating the M87 image, said the hundreds of scientists involved with the project were working on that.

“We’re coming up with ways of tying this information together to make not just pictures of black holes, but movies of it evolving over the course of a night,” she said.

“Right now, we just have a static picture,” Bouman said. “But just like seeing a movie tells you so much more about your environment than a single picture, getting that movie will allow us to learn so much more about the black hole.”

Committee members were fascinated by the movie angle. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) asked if it would be like Matthew McConaughey flying into a black hole in the science fiction film Interstellar.

US computer scientist Katherine Bouman speaks with ranking member Frank Lucas (R-OK) before a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on the "Event Horizon Telescope: The Black hole seen Round the World" in the Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Thursday.
US computer scientist Katherine Bouman speaks with ranking member Frank Lucas (R-OK) before a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on the “Event Horizon Telescope: The Black hole seen Round the World” in the Rayburn House office building in Washington, DC, on Thursday. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) asked if the work was proving some of the ideas that Instellar used — rather loosely — such as McConaughey aging slower near the black hole.

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“He came back and he had not aged as much a companion astronaut,” answered Doeleman. “You can go to a black hole. You can go close to it and your clocks will tick much more slowly than clocks farther away.

“In that sense we have validated Einstein at the black hole boundary, and maybe put Insterstellar on slightly better footing,” said Doeleman.

The point of the hearing was not to critique movies, of course, but as lawmakers explained, to give the scientists a platform to inspire others.

Doeleman said there was a lot to look forward to.

“Imagine when Galileo was looking through the first telescope,” he said. “It wasn’t the end of astronomy, it was the beginning of astronomy.”

He said the next wave of imaging from our galaxy should be ready within a year.

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